Elisa Thorn's Painting Project: Hue
Elisa Thorn

“Heard any good harp recordings lately?” Not a question I'm often asked (never, more like), but I've now got an answer: Hue by Elisa Thorn's Painting Project, a strikingly original debut collection that's certainly unlike any harp recording I've heard before. What makes the release a particularly interesting one is that the mini-album's five settings were generated using the abstract paintings of her father, Bruce Thorn, as a basis for composition and improvisation. Though her music holds up perfectly well on its own, an interesting synchronicity does emerge between it and the paintings, especially when, in keeping with her father's MO, she exploits the potential offered by colour, movement, and abstraction in her own works. Even more interesting is the fact that Thorn largely divests the harp of its classical associations by performing material that's closer in spirit to jazz than anything else. It's not a solo recording either, as the Vancouver-based harpist is joined on the set by bassist James Meger and drummer Justin Devries.

The addition of vocalist Britt Macleod to the swoon-inducing opener “Angels” (its text by Anne Szumigalski) makes for such a lovely result, it's a shame she appears on only one of the five songs, though wordless vocals also surface on the serenading closer “Escaping Genie.” “Angels” also shows how effectively Thorn's harp blends with the other instruments, especially when Meger's acoustic bass and Devries' drum brushes are carefully pitched to not overpower her playing. That said, Thorn holds her own when the music turns boisterous, as it gloriously does during “Night Song,” for example, and in an interesting twist, much of Hue eschews the gentility sometimes associated with the harp for a much more aggressive presentation.

As one might expect, dazzling harp strums surface in a number of places (most brilliantly during “Reds” and “Escaping Genie”), but for the most part Thorn picks out melodies on the instrument in a manner reminiscent of a fiercely improvising acoustic guitarist. And while the harp is the lead instrument, Thorn doesn't hog the spotlight: Meger introduces the swinging “Night Song” with a brief solo, and the impression created by the recording is of a full-group project whose members are equally integral to it. The Painting Project is just one of many groups with which Thorn's involved, by the way, with the others ranging from a quartet featuring harp, strings, and vocals (Gentle Party) to a harp-guitar-and-vocals trio (Star Triptych); when not performing or engaged in group projects, this 2011 UBC School of Music graduate is also a teacher who gives lessons in pedal and celtic harp.

February 2017